Hockey world loses two pioneer players

Lanny Peltier, left, and Duke Peltier, right, pose with Fred Sasakamoose at the 100th anniversary of St. Michael’s Indian Residential School in Saskatchewan in 1994. Both Mr. Sasakamoose and the Peltiers attended the school in different eras.

Howie Meeker and Fred Sasakamoose

Howie Meeker brought an analytical mind to hockey

NANAIMO – Hockey fans in Canada are saying farewell to a giant of the game following the recent passing of Howie Meeker, a National Hockey League (NHL) veteran and popular commentator who had a major impact on the way people played the game.

“He was just a really motivated, smart and hard-working guy, and I always have been and still am really impressed with him,” said Evansville’s Mike Meeker, recalling his late uncle who died in a British Columbia hospital on November 8 at age 97.

Howie Meeker grew up in New Hamburg, near Kitchener. He played as a right-winger for Kitchener and Stratford teams in the Ontario Hockey Association, taking a break to serve in the Canadian Army during the Second World War.

A year after his return, he joined the Toronto Maple Leafs and performed remarkably well in his debut season.

Howie Meeker was the last surviving member of the 1947, 1949 and 1951 Stanley Cup-winning Toronto Maple Leafs teams. He also helped the 1948 team win the cup; his recent death has made defence player Phil Samis as the last living member of that roster.

Later in 1951, he became the federal MP for Waterloo South as a Progressive Conservative. He held this position for two years while playing hockey. 

In 1955, he retired from the NHL and continued to play in other leagues until his official retirement from the game in 1969.

He coached the Leafs after his retirement and served very briefly as general manager.

Newfoundland premier Joey Smallwood personally invited him to move to Newfoundland and develop youth hockey training opportunities and reconcile the differences between the Catholic and Protestant hockey groups.

“I remember Howie telling me, a hockey game between Toronto and Detroit back in his day wasn’t hockey—it was war. When he went to Newfoundland, he felt right at home because the Catholics and the Protestants were at war,” said Mike Meeker with a laugh.

Howie Meeker developed a series of summer hockey camps that would give young skaters two-week crash courses in hockey fundamentals. He worked to reconcile the two religious groups so they would collaborate on building a larger hockey league.

That approach, alongside a focus on defence, was on full display for Mike Meeker, who used to spend every summer during his youth with his uncle in Newfoundland since age eight.

“I couldn’t have had better summers,” said Mike Meeker.

He later went on to coach at the camps and started running his own hockey schools, alongside a brief stint in the NHL himself.

“Very few coaches worked on fundamentals back in the day,” said Mike Meeker. “He wrote books on his coaching methods and I thought they were 30 years ahead of their time; I recently re-read them all and I still think they’re 30 years ahead of our time.”

Much of his inspiration came from watching the rise of Russian hockey culture and their successful focus on the basics. This made them a serious threat to North American players who had largely shifted away from the fundamentals.

“That was really because he had a very analytical mind. He coached Toronto for a short time but they fired him for that reason; he was too analytical. Back then, the coach was just supposed to be the motivator who was yelling and screaming,” said Mike Meeker.

His uncle believed that children would enjoy the game more if they knew the basics like skating, puck handling and passing.

Howie Meeker joined the military and suffered a grenade incident during training. Doctors said he would never walk again but Howie Meeker did them one better—he not only walked but returned to the ice.

Mike Meeker said his uncle stayed fit his whole life and worked out extra hard whenever an NHL old-timers’ game was coming up and he’d have to face down his arch-nemesis Ted Lindsay.

Howie Meeker was an avid angler but was not entirely supportive of his nephew’s career pursuits of aquaculture.

“He tried to talk me into taking over his schools many times because his own sons weren’t interested in it. But I was bound and determined that I was going to grow fish. He was blunt at times, saying ‘what a stupid thing to do when you’ve got so much potential for doing hockey stuff.’ It was nice to hear that, but I knew what I wanted to do,” said Mike Meeker.

Howie Meeker became a media personality after his retirement, both through his CBC Television programs on hockey education and as an excitable commentator for Hockey Night in Canada. He left broadcasting in 1998.

Mike Meeker said his uncle’s gameplay style and core lessons are evergreen, even if the younger generation has largely forgotten about the Howie Meeker name. The nephew studied the official coaching handbook to get his certification but described the document as “a huge, thick manual that tried to teach drills like military operations. It was ridiculous.”

“I’ve patterned my workouts after (Howie Meeker) from the get-go: skating, passing, shooting,” said Mike Meeker. “They’re geared to trying to keep kids skating, busy and thinking.”

Howie Meeker was a member of the Order of Canada and is listed in several halls of fame.

Island sports historian and Expositor columnist Larry LeBlanc shared fond memories of Howie Meeker’s straightforward coaching style and passion for the game.

“He kept up to date on the new guys that came into the league and would comment about the changes between the old hockey style and the new hockey style. Contrary to most old veterans, he was not totally against the new style of hockey, but when he was giving advice to kids it was always ‘play it simple’,” Mr. LeBlanc said, adding that Howie Meeker firmly believed that the old style was more entertaining.

In his own coaching days, Mr. LeBlanc firmly followed Howie Meeker’s fundamentals-first style. That approach led his teams to many successes when compared to some of the European-influenced styles.

“He grew the game with his own enthusiasm and he showed people that the fancy stuff was not necessary,” said Mr. LeBlanc. 

Fred Sasakamoose recalled for lasting impacts

PRINCE ALBERT – The Canadian hockey world is mourning after Fred Sasakamoose, a Cree athlete who became the first First Nation player with Indian Status in the National Hockey League (NHL), died of COVID-19 in late November at the age of 86. His legacy has inspired generations of Indigenous children and fostered more Indigenous representation in the professional sport.

“He’s definitely the face of Indigenous hockey,” said Wiikwemkoong Ogimaa Duke Peltier, a hockey player himself. “He’s transcended regional and territorial boundaries by making it to the NHL against all odds.”

Mr. Sasakamoose, born in 1933 in Saskatchewan, attended St. Michael’s Indian Residential School when he was seven years old after government officials and a priest took him from his family. 

While playing hockey at the school, 150 kilometres from home, the institution’s sports director noticed his talent and worked with Mr. Sasakamoose to improve his skills.

Mr. Sasakamoose has since spoken publicly about the abuse he faced at the school and its lasting negative impacts on his life.

He began playing in the Western Canada Junior Hockey League and soon became the most valuable player of that season.

On November 20, 1953, Mr. Sasakamoose played his first NHL game with the Chicago Black Hawks (then spelled as three words). In total, he played 11 games in the 1953-1954 season.

The effects of residential school remained present in his life. After that season, he returned home—where he had always wanted to be, according to The Canadian Encyclopedia. He bought food and much-needed gifts for his parents but then turned heavily to alcohol.

Mr. Sasakamoose slipped from his training regimen and failed to make next year’s cut for the Black Hawks. He played in minor leagues closer to home until the end of his career.

He later became chief of Ahathkakoop Cree Nation in central Saskatchewan, when he vowed to quit drinking to serve as a role model for his community.

Throughout his hockey career and for the remainder of his life he worked to get more children involved in sports, including helping to launch many sports camps, tournaments and the Northern Indian Hockey League.

Mr. Sasakamoose is a member of the Order of Canada and holds honours in several sports halls of fame.

In November, Mr. Sasakamoose contracted COVID-19 and entered hospital for treatment. Just four days after he received a positive test result, he died of the disease.

Ogimaa Peltier went on to attend the very same residential school as Mr. Sasakamoose. He was part of an elite hockey team from Wiikwemkoong that went to the western Canadian hockey championships in 1993 and was chosen to attend a hockey camp at southern Alberta’s Blood Tribe Reserve.

He was invited to continue his high school studies at St. Michael’s and play for the hockey team there.

The school was trying to set up an all-Indigenous AAA midget hockey team; Ogimaa Peltier graduated in 1994 and the team began shortly thereafter. The last residential schools in Canada closed in 1996 and the team ran under the Beardy’s and Okemasis’ Cree Nation.

In 1994, the school held a 100th anniversary that celebrated notable alumni. As part of the ceremony, the school honoured its provincial championship-winning team, which included Mr. Sasakamoose.

“He was definitely propped up as an example and a role model for all those that went to St. Michael’s Indian Residential School and played hockey there,” said Ogimaa Peltier.

Ogimaa Peltier’s later team at the University of Saskatchewan went to Mr. Sasakamoose’s First Nation to help with a hockey school; he recalled meeting Mr. Sasakamoose who was proud of the First Nation representation on the university’s team.

Pat Madahbee (or ‘Mad Dog’ as he’s known on the ice), former grand council chief of the Anishinabek Nation and a long-time chief of Aundeck Omni Kaning, was part of the inaugural edition of the Little Native Hockey League (LNHL) as a referee during its first event in Little Current.

He said Mr. Sasakamoose’s shot in the big leagues was a rare opportunity that many children miss.

“There would have been a lot more in the league but there’s a lot of racism in sports. I know of a gentleman who probably should have made it big in sports; he grew up on the North Shore but when a (priest) was asked about his family, he said they were all drunks and not worth picking up,” he said.

Mr. Sasakamoose wasn’t among Mr. Madahbee’s childhood hockey heroes, mainly because the league did not prominently recognize Indigenous players except in offhand commentator remarks during games. 

In recent decades, when Indigenous players gained more prominence, he learned about Mr. Sasakamoose’s legacy and impact on the game for young Indigenous players across Turtle Island. 

After many years of Mr. Madahbee’s efforts, Mr. Sasakamoose attended the LNHL tournament in 2017. The two had briefly met decades earlier at a chiefs meeting in Ottawa.

“The Little NHL sends our thoughts and prayers to the family of Fred,” said Mr. Madahbee. “He was a very kind, soft-spoken gentleman. He wasn’t showy, just modest, soft and good and encouraging with the kids at our tournament.”

Up-and-coming player Kelly Babstock, a Wiikwemkoong band member who plays for the Metropolitan Riveters in the National Women’s Hockey League in New Jersey, said Mr. Sasakamoose was a major role model in her home community.

“Having him provide the pathway for Native kids to go to the NHL was huge; he was one of the first. He was very influential in the hockey game in our community and he inspired a lot of youth to shoot for the stars and go pro,” Ms. Babstock said.

Ms. Babstock began to learn about his story when she was a teenager in the mid-2000s as his legacy became more well known.

“A lot of kids have been very inspired by Freddy and want to make him proud; it’s exciting to see how much of an impact he’s had and the inspiration he’ll have for generations to come,” she said.